Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Brief but Very Satisfactory Wooing

by Anne O'Brien

This is the only true representation we have of the appearance of Philippa of Hainault, taken from her tomb in Westminster Abbey next to that of Edward III. Some five years before her death she gave orders for it to be carved specifcally to show her as she was in advancing age, not as she had been in her youth. She was about 55 years old at this time. It shows her as stout and maternal with broad features. She has no claim to beauty but without doubt Edward loved her.

In July 1326, when the future Edward III was 14 years old, he and his mother Queen Isabella, visited Valenciennes in the state of Hainault on a mission - to find the youthful Edward a bride. They had been sent a description of one of the Hainault daughters, of which there were four: Margaret, Philippa, Jeanne and Isabella.

The description was always thought to have been of Philippa, written by Bishop Stapledon who had visited Hainault twice and reported back. The young girl was described in 1319 as having dark hair, deep-set brown eyes, a large forehead and a large nose, but not snubbed. Her body and limbs were well formed but some of her teeth were discoloured. It does not sound to be the stuff of high romance, but the proposed bride was considered to be an attractive proposition for the young prince. It has to be said that Isabella, in conflict with her husband Edward II, had her eye on a troop of Hainaulter mercenaries, which might have swayed her in her choice of a Hainault bride for her son. A contemporary writer further suggested that Philippa had been chosen because of the quality of her hips for childbearing - not the first or the last time such an attribute was to play a part when the provision of an heir was of paramount importance.

This charming illustration shows Edward at 14 years at his coronation, some months after the visit. He looks very young, but his decision with regard to his future bride suggests that he had a degree of maturity.

Recent research suggests that the description was not in fact Philippa, but more likely her eldest sister Margaret, chiefly because of the correlation of birth dates with Stapledon's visit. In fact Margaret was not available for marriage. By the time that Edward visited Hainault, Margaret was already married to Ludwig of Bavaria.

The decision that Edward and Philippa would marry was made by Isabella and Count William of Hainault, Philippa's father, thus the young people had no say in the matter. Philippa was about 12 years old and the wedding, it was agreed, would happen within the next two years. Edward's visit lasted for only 8 days, at the end of which, when Edward left, Philippa is said to have wept bitterly.

Edward met Philippa again in January 1328 at the gates of York and they were married the next day in York Minster. This began a marriage that lasted for forty years until Philippa's death in 1369. In character, they matched each other perfectly. They enjoyed books - Philippa read romances while Edward enjoyed tales of the heroic feats of King Arthur. They enjoyed hunting, celebrations and extravagant festivities. They also enjoyed their family life, Philippa producing 12 children, Edward being an indulgent and generous father. Edward was the flamboyant one: Philippa had a strong streak of common sense and loyalty to Edward, both of which he needed to put his reign on a firm footing.

So what happened in those eight days in Valenciennes in July 1326 between Edward and Philippa that caused Philippa to weep when her young suitor left? We have no idea. Whatever attraction there was between the two young people, it laid the foundation for one of the most important and successful marriages - and one of the most definitive reigns - in English history.

Anne O'Brien: author of Virgin Widow and Queen Defiant/Devil's Consort
The King's Concubine, a novel of Alice Perrers, is released in May (UK) June(US) 2012


  1. Intriguing. Enjoyed this post. Thank you. *karendianne.

  2. Great post - very interesting. Thanks.

  3. I really enjoyed this as well! Thank you for sharing.


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